Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton is entering his third, crucial season as a starter. While he's had moderate success in his first two seasons, helping the Bengals reach the playoffs in each year, there are still aspects to his game which need work.
Some of those—like his reaction to pressure—can't be fixed with a draft pick. However others, such as decision-making, can, as long as the Bengals find the right player. And that they did in the first round on Thursday night with their selection of Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert with their 21st-overall pick.
A quarterback is only as good as the targets he has to throw to. Luckily for Dalton, he's spent the last two years joined by wide receiver A.J. Green who has quickly become one of the most effective, explosive receivers in the league. Though Green is an excellent player, having just one playmaker can leave a quarterback in a bad situation.
Where does Dalton go, for example, when Green is facing tough double- or even triple-coverage?
Before Thursday night, his options were another tight end, Jermaine Gresham, who caught 64 of 94 passes thrown his way in 2012 for 737 yards and five touchdowns, or his No. 2 receiver, who projects to be Mohamed Sanu in 2013 but was a combination of Sanu, Brandon Tate, Armon Binns (no longer with the Bengals) and Marvin Jones, owing partially to Sanu breaking his foot in practice in November. Slot receiver Andrew Hawkins is more of a risky target—though fast, he's small, so only in the right situation will passes thrown to him yield major results.
These aren't a bad group of receivers to throw to if Green has been neutralized. But the addition of Eifert means not just another target, but another bona fide weapon, someone who creates mismatches on the field and allows more versatility in their overall approach to the passing game.
Now, the Bengals can confidently run a two-tight end set that should help free up Green for deep passes, avoiding any single potential target from drawing too much coverage. Eifert is not just "some tight end" who requires defending simply because he's on the field—he's the best player at the position in this draft, who lines up not in the slot, but out wide like a receiver. Resources must be dedicated to him in much the same way as they are to Green, because, if not, then Eifert will make a play.
And if they are? That means that Green could be in single coverage, or Gresham or Sanu are seeing single coverage or find themselves temporarily without a defender on their heels. Just a momentary opening for Dalton can mean the difference between a completion and throwing the ball away or worse—taking a sack or forcing a ball to Green in good coverage that results in an interception.
In his two years under center for the Bengals, Dalton has steadily improved though the leaps from year one to year two weren't particularly dramatic. He had 3,669 passing yards compared to 3,398 his rookie year, 27 touchdowns and 16 interceptions compared to 20 and 13, respectively, his first season, averaged 6.95 yards per attempt, up from 6.59 the year before and completed 62.3 percent of his passes compared to 58.1 percent.
What the Bengals need from Dalton this year is a major leap. As a third-year quarterback, the game should slow down for him dramatically, his decision-making should improve drastically and his yards, touchdowns and completion percentage should all go up as a result.
Expecting this to happen with the same cast around him, however, would have been a risky assumption. By providing him with a new and dangerous weapon in Eifert helps this goal become far more achievable for both the Bengals and Dalton. It also leaves him with no excuses if his production doesn't rise or, somehow, dips.
The Eifert pick isn't a total vote of confidence in Dalton, but it is definitely a move to push Dalton in the direction the Bengals hope he eventually takes, and more quickly at that. If Dalton is truly Cincinnati's franchise quarterback, he should be able to prove it now that he's surrounded by receiving options specifically placed there to help him.